An Unhappy Christmas: Christmas 1535
Missing her grandson, missing her friend…
Maria de Salinas, widow of the 11th Baron Willoughby of Eresby, awoke to the sound of her grandson, little Henry, crying to be fed, when it was barely light.
It was a Saturday morning, and Christmas Day, in the Year of Our Lord, 1535, was only a week away, yet she had to go up to London on the morrow. She had been ordered to court by the king for the Christmas festivities. Not that she felt at all festive this year. She could do without all the ‘splendour’ of court, and would give anything to stay with her daughter and new grandson, Henry, this year. But, if the king says you have to be at court, you have to be at court!
Indeed, she was surprised that her daughter, Catherine, had not also been ordered to court as well, to show off her firstborn to all and sundry, but it seemed that her doctor’s view had prevailed – that she was still too weak to travel. It had been a difficult birth at the end of September. She had lost a lot of blood, and was only just now beginning to recover her strength. They had a wet-nurse for the child, the doctor was not very far away, and the household was well-managed. So Maria knew she should not worry – but that did not stop her worrying! Catherine was still only fifteen years old after all, barely out of childhood herself.
And, of course, that was not all Maria was worrying about. She knew that her great friend, Catalina, had been very ill, but all of Maria’s requests to visit her had been rebuffed by the king. He seemed to be afraid that Catherine would conspire with her to bring about a rebellion in favour of their daughter, Mary, and wanted to keep her isolated from the world as much as possible. Maria knew that this was a complete nonsense, of course, but Henry seemed afraid of his own shadow these days, yet covered his fears with bluster of the worst kind, egged on by his greatest friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
The fact that Suffolk was now Maria’s son-in-law, and father to her grandson, made very little difference. He was a horrible man, and she liked him less and less, the more she got to know him. He had helped a lot, when Maria’s little Catherine was made his ward, after Baron Willoughby died. The baron’s brother, Sir Christopher Willoughby, had tried to wrest the title, and property of Grimsthorpe castle, from its rightful owner, Maria’s daughter, the twelfth Baroness.
Being the Duke of Suffolk had helped the law take its proper course, then; greasing a few palms had probably helped too! But that didn’t really help Maria to like him at all.
Then the duke had realised that if he married his young ward himself, instead of letting the planned wedding to his son, the Earl of Lincoln, go ahead, he would always have the income from the Eresby property, as well as having a comely young girl to bed for himself!
Maria had always known, well enough, about the debauchery that Suffolk had led Henry into, from the reports that came to her from Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, to pass on to Queen Catherine – meddlesome man! Quite how he got the information he was able to get, she did not know. He must have spies everywhere. Nevertheless, Maria also held a very dim view of Suffolk’s penchant for young girls.
So, she did not really want the duke as a son-in-law, but was in no position to do anything about it, if Henry gave his permission. And that had always been a foregone conclusion as far as Suffolk was concerned. So Maria gave her daughter what advice she could, but she felt sure it would never be enough to protect her against such a foul beast as Brandon appeared to be.
The only woman he had appeared to treat with reasonable respect had been his third wife, King Henry’s younger sister, Mary, whom he seems to have seduced rather than debauched. Certainly Maria thought Mary Tudor had been in love with the ‘idea’ of the handsome Charles Brandon since she was a little girl, watching her older brother and his even older friend together. Whether Mary found that he lived up to her ideal, Maria de Salinas did not know.
After Mary Tudor’s brief political marriage, engineered by her politically astute brother, King Henry VIII of England, to the wizened old French King (with gout and a pock marked face) Brandon had ‘rescued’ her from another political marriage after King Louis died, by secretly marrying her in France at some risk to himself. He was relying on his friendship with Henry being strong enough to withstand Henry’s short term annoyance. The bravado worked, and Mary Tudor had loved him for it, but Maria de Salinas, the eleventh Baroness d’Eresby, had always thought it more self-serving than self-sacrificing.
One little thing Maria had always remembered, was once coming across Mary in the gardens at Richmond, quietly sobbing. And, in a moment of unusual vulnerability, Mary admitted, to her sister-in-law’s best friend, that “Charles could be very cruel in bed…” Then she covered her mouth with her hand, as if realising she had already said too much. But those words kept coming back to haunt Maria, when she thought of her fourteen year old daughter, swept legally into the same bed of the soon-to-be-fifty duke.
The fact that the marriage bed had quickly produced a pregnancy, and that the duke was most often at court, rather than at Grimsthorpe Castle in southern Lincolnshire, was a comfort to Maria, who chose to spend as much time as she could looking after her duchess-daughter’s welfare!
Little Henry’s cries had now quietened, after the wet-nurse picked him up to suckle him. She was a nice friendly country girl, though not too bright. And she was very loving to the little boy. His cries had set the household moving, too, and now servants were bringing wood, and coals, for the fire. Maria’s ladies were laying out her day clothes, and Catherine’s ladies were washing the duchess, who was preparing for another day reposing in bed.
Once little Henry (named after the king, of course!) had had his fill of milk, Maria took great delight in walking back and forth across the chamber, with him over her shoulder and patting his back. She had, perhaps, a closer relationship with her grandson than ever she had been allowed with her daughter, since she had had to bring her daughter into the world in the intensely closeted environment of the court. She would miss him terribly when she left for London tomorrow.
As she walked round the chamber she was thinking of her friend Catalina, too, stuck in cold, damp, Kimbolton Castle with a bare minimum of servants to look after her day to day needs, but with no friendly faces to support her. Maria had been writing regularly, and she was getting some replies, but she was not at all sure Catherine was getting all her mail. There were always some gaps in her replies that suggested she had not got this piece of news, or that bit of gossip. She was fairly sure, too, that the letters in both directions were carefully vetted, for the least suggestion of conspiracy, so was always circumspect in what she wrote.
It was now over two years since she had last seen her best friend in the world, and she was now very worried about Queen Catherine’s health. She still thought of Catherine as queen even though Henry had forbidden anyone to refer to her as such. She was formally to be known as the Dowager Princess of Wales, referring to her brief marriage to Arthur, Prince of Wales all those years ago!
The queen had written to Maria at the beginning of this December, 1535, that she had had serious pains in her chest, so Maria thought she had perhaps had a heart attack, though the doctors apparently said not? Then her last letter, which arrived only a couple of days previously, indicated she had felt much improved on the 17th of December, well enough to ‘celebrate’ her fiftieth birthday, with a short walk to the “lovely little chapel in the walled garden…” where she had “…given thanks to the Lord for a long life.
Maria had allowed herself a small ironic smile at this last sentence since, when they were small children, they had always talked about wanting to have a ‘Happy Life’ in preference to a ‘Long Life’. Catherine would have known that Maria was the only person in the world able to read between the lines of that sentence!
The smile was quickly followed by just two hot tears, one from each eye, which trickled slowly down her cheeks at the sadness embraced in those words. And yet Catalina was always so loyal to her husband, the king, much to Maria’s disapproval. Catherine still really loved her Henry, despite his many faults.
Maria had been so relieved by that last letter, but she still wished she could go and talk to Catherine and tell her of all that was happening in her own life here at Grimsthorpe.
“Oh, my Lord, I DO miss her very much…” she breathed quietly into Little Henry’s ear, “…and I shall miss YOU very much, too, whilst I am away! I hope you will be a good little boy for your mama!” She nuzzled his neck and took a deep breath of his lovely sicky, milky, baby smell!
The next day she gave her daughter a huge hug and her grandson a huge cuddle, before setting off with two of her ladies, and a quartet of guards for the long ride to court in Richmond. After nearly three hours of travelling they reached the fork in the track, where they had to take the London Road instead of the road which would quickly have taken them to Kimbolton. It took all of Maria’s willpower not to turn her horse along the Kimbolton track! She could have been there in less than another hour, perhaps even in half an hour from that point, if she cantered her horse rather than trotting! It set her mind working as to how she might have gained access, for she knew Kimbolton would be well guarded. These thoughts carried her onwards, barely conscious of her progress towards court.
She was tired when her party eventually reached court in the gathering darkness. The guards with her found some servants ready to take their horses and belongings in charge. Maria set off with long strides after a servant carrying her bags, to her allotted chambers. She was followed closely by her two ladies, who knew they would have little time to get her ready for the banquet she was expected to attend this evening. Most of her best gowns had been left at court, so they knew there would be something ready she could wear, which would look well on her still-slender frame.
Maria tried, as hard as she might, to give herself over to the various festivities leading up to Christmas Day, but her heart was not there at all. Many were the times when some acquaintance, or friend, came up to her and spoke, but she had to ask them to speak again, for she had not registered what they were saying. By and large, she also tried to keep out of the way of the ‘royal couple’, in case she should offend them by appearing disrespectful. It wasn’t as if she actually hid herself, but she did try to stay on the fringes of any activity, and kept out of the most brightly lit areas.
In the end, it was this strategy which caught her out, when, in the shadows, she literally bumped into the Duke of Suffolk.
Well, he probably bumped into her since he was a little the worse for drink, it being quite late in the evening – the carousing having been going on continuously for several hours! He rocked a little on his heels, then broke into an ungracious laugh.
“Well, if it isn’t my mother-in-law!” He put his free hand round her shoulder, the other hand unsteadily holding a tankard of strong ale.
“How are you enjoying this feast, Mother?! And how does my wife, and our child, in Grimsthorpe?” …all of which was said in an unnecessarily LOUD voice.
“Little Henry and Catherine are well now, Your Grace, thank you. Catherine is still weak, but now able to get up for short periods during the day.” Maria hoped that giving him positive news in a civil manner might get rid of the man sooner than trying to ignore him. Sadly, she was mistaken.
“So delighted to hear it, my dear mother-in-law! Come and make your report to the king, too! Come…come!” He had hold of her arm, and was more or less dragging her into the chamber, wherein sat Henry and his pregnant wife, Anne.
The king seemed pleased to see her, whereas Anne’s face turned into a worse scowl than usual, on seeing her.
“Mary Willoughby, as I live and breathe! How are you?”
Henry always anglicised her name, and had once called a ship of the realm after her. It had once amused her, as it had amused Catherine, but the amusement soon wore thin. All of Maria’s long years of practice and training came into play, however, and she smiled her sweetest court smile, and curtsied low.
“Your Highness. I am well, thanks be to God. His Grace, the Duke, asked me to let you know how my daughter and grandson are faring at Grimsthorpe. As I just told him, they are both quite well now, and Catherine is getting stronger day by day.”
She hoped if she kept the report brief and factual she might just be allowed to go. She felt very uncomfortable in the presence of Anne Boleyn, who now styled herself Queen of England with, of course, the king’s blessing, but in the most arrogant and obnoxious way. The king, however, mellow with drink and fine entertainment, wanted stimulating company, and he had always enjoyed Maria’s sharply amusing tongue and her ability to hold her own, in any conversation, about anything. It was not a trait that was always evident at court!
“Sit, my Lady, sit! …Bring some chairs over here now!” he bellowed at a passing servant, who jumped out of his skin, but responded with aplomb.
Chairs were duly brought, and Anne’s nose was rather put out of joint, when she had to shuffle round to make room for the newcomers, the Duke of Suffolk and his ‘mother-in-law’.
Maria had to relate all about Catherine’s recovery, and how little Henry was doing. And, in truth, she actually felt better now that she could share her pleasure at being a grandmother! She felt more relaxed with a couple of goblets of wine inside her too, and suddenly she felt bolder as well.
“Your Highness… as you can tell I am thrilled to tell you about my grandson…” she took a deep breath and tried to choose her words carefully, “…and as you can imagine, I would love to be able to tell my good friend, and countrywoman, the Dowager Princess of Wales…”
The words nearly choked her, but she knew if she did not bend a little, Henry would explode…
“May I have your permission to visit Catalina, in Kimbolton, after Christmas?”
She hoped her reference to Catherine as Catalina might disarm him… and so it nearly did. He smiled almost fondly, until a loud and unladylike snort reminded him of Anne’s presence. His demeanour changed very quickly, and his mellowness disappeared.
“No, my Lady Willoughby, you may not. And you shall not speak of this again in my presence. Now, please leave us.”
The look on Anne Boleyn’s face would haven frozen a volcano in mid-eruption, and her gloating eyes would forever haunt Maria’s dreams. Nevertheless Maria would not allow the witch the satisfaction of seeing her beaten. She rose gracefully from her chair and bid them all a calm “Good evening.” She swept slowly from the chamber with as much grace as she could muster, and reached her chamber with her head held high, breaking down in wracking sobs only when the door was firmly closed behind her.
For the rest of the Christmas period she managed to show herself to be at court, so that a few people saw her around, but also managed to keep well out of the central areas, so she could keep out of the way of Henry and Anne; and, particularly, out of the way of the Duke of Suffolk.
On Christmas Day itself she did appear at the feasting – otherwise the king would have noticed her absence, and would probably have had her fetched, and paraded, to embarrass her. But she avoided, as much as possible, from being near the king. This, in itself, was unusual behaviour at court, since most people there wanted to be near, and to be seen to be near, the royal couple. She did have to talk to Suffolk once or twice, but, since a lot of people wanted to be seen to be near him too, there were several natural opportunities for her to slip away again.
On the twenty-eighth of December, news came from Kimbolton that Catherine, the Dowager Princess of Wales, was taken seriously ill again. By now, Maria had given up hope of getting permission to go and see her friend, even though it was rumoured, a couple of days later, that Eustace Chapuys had managed to get permission, since it seemed likely that Catherine was now expected to die very soon. Chapuys left court on January the first, and was expected to be in Kimbolton the next day.
Maria kept as quiet as possible, and as much in the background as she could. But she had hatched a plan, which she shared with no-one.
She told two of the four guards who accompanied her up to London, to go directly back to Grimsthorpe, accompanying her two ladies-in-waiting, since she would be “…staying alone at court a little while longer, and they should resume their posts on behalf of little Henry…” She asked them to say nothing to their colleagues, and just go as soon as possible. The two remaining guards were men who had been in her service for several years, and she knew she could trust them to be discreet.
Then, on the fourth of January, she bustled around the court, saying loud goodbyes, to as many people as possible, telling them she was going back to Grimsthorpe to be with her daughter and grandson. She even had quite a long conversation with the Duke of Suffolk about going back, and she was ready, early on the fifth, to set off with her two remaining guards.
By early afternoon, the three of them had passed the fork in the road which she should have taken if she was going to Kimbolton, for she did not want to get the guards into trouble. It was a little frustrating for her, but she needed to be firm with herself!
Two or three miles further on, she pleaded a headache, and told the guards she would take shelter in…
“…yonder priory. I know the sisters in there. But it is a strictly women only place, so you must carry on to Grimsthorpe, and let them know I am safe, and that I will be there shortly.”
The guards protested a little, and offered to stay in the village just along the way, and come back for her in the morning. But she was firm with them, and they knew her to be both strong minded and a capable woman; and it was only about twenty miles further to Grimsthorpe, so they did not argue. Because they would be in sight for a while, she actually had to go to the priory, and speak with the prioress. But she found some excuse for a conversation with her, which was more or less plausible, but she did leave the prioress a little confused, when she left quickly.
The sky was full of dark snow-clouds and the afternoon was progressing quickly, so Maria knew she had to make good time now. It was bitterly cold too, though she was well wrapped up against the cold wind.
She soon retraced her steps to the fork in the road, where she could now take the right turn that would take her to Kimbolton. From there it was about another fifteen miles to the castle, but no sooner had she turned than the snow started to fall. After a couple of minutes, the snow-flakes had gone from being tiny swirling specks, to large fluffy flakes, settling quickly on the already frozen ground. The wind had dropped, so it was not actually a blizzard, but it was not very long before the ground was white over, and getting thicker underfoot.
The sound quality changed as well, since the snow acted as a baffle. The trotting hooves of her mount now sounded much muted, and there was no echo either. Thankfully, the track was well defined through the trees and hedgerows, so she was not expecting to lose her way, but she was a little concerned her plan was rather foolhardy… ‘…what if…?’
“Stop that at once!” she spoke the words out loud to herself, and took tighter hold on the reins!
A little over an hour later, she suddenly saw the castle, on a small mound, as she rounded a corner in the track. The heavy snow had stopped falling, but the ground was quite deep with fluffy white snow. She pulled up, and with great effort of will, turned back around the corner, for a few moments, and dismounted from the horse.
She walked over to a nearby tree, and carefully banged her forehead against the trunk, scraping her skin a little. She also rubbed her outer coat against the tree, so it had a smear of green moss along it, and then, for good measure, she tore her cape’s hood a little as well.
She thought a little while, and decided she should also make the boots look damaged too – ‘…pity though, they are brand new boots!’ She scraped her right boot against the green of the trees, and then she let herself fall backwards into the snow, so her cape was well covered with white, though, to be honest, it probably already was snow-covered from the ride. She was beginning to enjoy this!
She remounted the horse, which had stood patiently, watching her rider behave oddly. Then she cantered the rest of the way to the castle gateway. She had to ring the bell-pull several times before anyone came to see who was making the noise on such a terrible winter afternoon.
Two guards showed themselves above the gate and the older one said…
“Who goes there?”
“Dowager Baroness of Eresby, mother-in-law of the Duke of Suffolk, let me enter now!”
The two guards conversed briefly and again it was the older man who spoke.
“I am so sorry, my lady, but we have very strict instructions not to let ANYBODY inside the castle!” He sounded very concerned that he was perhaps insulting someone of a very important nature, but his orders had been very explicit.
“Well, I know for certain that that is not correct because I know the Imperial Ambassador, Monsieur Chapuys, is visiting the Dowager Princess of Wales. And, also, a court officer was sent here, from Richmond Palace, in haste this very morning, bringing orders to let me in to see my cousin, and friend, on her deathbed.”
Maria deliberately let her Spanish accent show, rather more than it usually did these days. Very few people noticed she had any accent at all, after all these years in England. Talking of Catherine as her ‘cousin’ was a little exaggerated, too, although she believed her father’s mother had been somehow related to one of the Spanish royal families, if, perhaps, rather loosely!?
“I am sorry my Lady, but no-one has brought such new orders and my orders are very explic…”
Before he could finish the sentence, Maria shouted up tearfully and indistinctly…
“I am …mbl..indistinct…jumble …sob…and I fell off my horse a mile back …and mbl…jumble indistinct…and … sob; …sob;…COME DOWN HERE AT ONCE, AND SPEAK WITH ME!”
The older guard was hopeless with women’s tears and had no idea how to respond. And the younger guard was, frankly, just hopeless. The imperious nature of her last words made the older man move, however, and he came down from above the gate, and opened a doorway in the main larger gate – just a little.
Maria leaned down, so that he could see her ‘head injury’, and the torn cape hood, and started crying…
“I have come all the way down from court in London, it has taken nearly all day…sob;…sob;…my guards took a wrong turn, and I lost them in the blizzard …sob;…sob;… My only friend in England is dying, and I must see her…sob;…sob; I fell off my horse after banging my head on a tree branch a mile back…sob;… I am hungry, and weak, and the king will be furious if I die out here in the snow whilst my cousin dies!!”
By now she was crying real tears, because the underlying truth was now really hurting. Catherine was dying and she was really all alone in a foreign country, with no friends around her.
The guard was hopelessly torn between his required task and his humanity. He had suspected, before, that Maria was putting it all on to befuddle him, but he recognised real pain when he saw it – he had lost his old mum just last year.
And suddenly the gate was open and Maria was riding through into the snow-covered cobbled courtyard. She dismounted, and handed the horse over to the care of the younger guard, who had remained silent throughout, allowing the older man to make the decision.
Maria then headed for the main doorway, and someone must have been watching through one of the windows, because the door had opened before she knocked. A girl came to take her cape, and showed her into a small room with a roaring fire.
“My Lady d’Eresby!” Eustace Chapuys came from near the fire to greet her.
“You have obviously had a hard journey! Let me call for a warm orange posset for you.”
Chapuys spoke excellent Spanish, but he chose to speak to Maria in English, since it was more than likely that Cromwell would have his spies listening in. And, if they spoke in English about the weather, and orange possets, Cromwell could have no grounds for thinking they were conspiring against the English crown.
For her part, Maria had to keep to her story of permission being granted, but not having arrived, and the fact that she had fallen from her horse on the way, again, just in case others were listening in. So their conversation was somewhat stilted, to say the least.
Chapuys explained that he had been talking with Catherine earlier, and, although she had been in considerable pain in the morning, she had rallied a little and they had conversed about “…this and that…” for an hour or so before she tired, and sent him away so she could sleep a little. That had been only half an hour or so previously, so Chapuys suggested Maria had a little time to settle herself before Catherine was likely to surface again.
“I will probably do that, indeed, Ambassador…and I would be so pleased for you to order me a warm posset… But I have travelled long and far, and it would be ungracious of me if I were not to look in on my friend, and just peek to see if she is yet awake, even if ’tis only to let her know I have managed to get here at last.”
Then, more to herself, than to Chapuys
“…it has been such a long time. I should have come before!”
She managed to seem calm, and ask the ambassador how to discover Catherine’s chamber, as casually as she could. But, really, she was desperate to just run up the stairs, and fling all the doors open, until she found the right room! Having listened to, and understood, his directions she just managed to restrain herself from dashing away; and, in fact, her exit from Chapuys’ presence was almost graceful. As she left the room, Chapuys was pulling a silken cord attached to a bell in the kitchens to order the confection for her. She heard a distant tinkling as she was going up the first half flight of steps. Then throwing caution to the wind, she ran the rest of the way.
Then she forced herself to slow down, just in case Catherine was asleep, and managed to open the door quietly, peeping her head round the door frame as quietly as she cou
With her head and shoulders propped up about thirty degrees from the horizontal, Catherine looked very pale and shrunken in the big down pillows, with her hands resting down by her sides over the top of the covers. Despite the very cold weather outside, Maria was very pleased to find the chamber was toasty and warm, with a log fire providing heat – and a flickering light – in the gloom of late afternoon.
Seated next to the bed, was a young woman of around eighteen or so, slowly embroidering a silken handkerchief. Maria did not recognise her, so she presumed the girl was an older child of a local gentleman’s family, rather than a member of the former queen’s retinue from the court – most of whom had been sent away anyway. For her part, the girl probably did recognise Maria, and smiled sweetly as she welcomed Maria to the Dowager Princess’s bedside. She showed no surprise at having another visitor.
Maria made as little noise as possible, but a rustle of a skirt, or a quiet scrape of a shoe on the floor was enough to make Catherine open her eyes. At first, rather unfocused, she looked at Maria and looked away, and then Maria became the centre of her focus and her eyes shone with the pleasure of recognition…
“Maria, is it really you…?”
Maria could not utter a word, not even a syllable. Her eyes filled with tears, her throat constricted with a lump the size of an orange, but she moved close to the bed holding her hands out, taking one of Catherine’s hands, and holding it to her lips. She managed to nod her head, and make a “mm” sound of affirmation. She was SO pleased to see her friend, and yet SO hurt to see her in this predicament, no words seemed adequate.
“Did the king give you permission to be here with me, has he relented…?”
Maria laughed a slightly hysterical laugh, tears now streaming down her face…
“NO!! The king did NOT give his permission – I slipped away from court, sent my guards packing to Grimsthorpe, pretended to go to a priory, left the prioress in utter confusion as to why I was there and then had to rush off – I think she thought I was mad – I think perhaps I am a little mad! I rode like a madwoman through a blizzard, acted as foreign as possible for the guards, telling them that Henry would be furious if I was not allowed in, ripped my cape; deliberately banged my head against a tree and rolled in the snow, sobbed and cried, real tears as it turned out, left Eustace Chapuys in the chamber below ordering me an orange posset; and came running up the stairs thinking you might fade away before I got here; and now I am having hysterics and rambling like a madwoman again!…”
…at which point she had to take a breath. Catherine squeezed her friend’s hand tightly – stronger than Maria expected! – and just smiled a little smile.
“Maria, my dear…can you start the story again. I am not used to having conversations with a madwoman at such a speed. Take a breath, and tell me all of that again, slowly. Young Frances here will go downstairs and ensure the orange posset is delivered here to my chamber; and that Monsieur Chapuys is left downstairs so we can chatter together undisturbed – won’t you Frances?”
Catherine looked across at the girl, who had discreetly moved away from the bed. She smiled, curtsied and went off willingly to do Catherine’s bidding.
“She’s a lovely girl, very sweet natured, but not much of a conversationalist!”
Worried about her friend’s strength, and concerned she might tire her, Maria asked how Catherine was feeling.
“Tired. Tired of dying, tired of living, but so happy to see my best friend fooling the monarch and battling the weather, and my guards, just to see me! Bless you girl!”
“GIRL?” Maria exclaimed…”I am a grandmother, for goodness sake!”
“Yes – so I heard. I am not completely cut off from important news, you know. I was so pleased for you …and your grandson may be a Duke one day!”
“We have so much to talk about, I have so much to tell you, but I have no idea where to start…” Maria suddenly felt speechless again.
“Well, you can take a breath, and try and tell me again how you managed to get here – but take your time this time; I want to understand it all! Sit down as well – now you are here, we might as well get comfortable.”
Maria was amazed at how calm Catherine was, and how ‘at ease’ she felt now she had achieved her goal of simply being here.
They talked… and talked… and talked. In fact Maria did most of the talking, telling her story again as requested, this time with all the little details and diversions that she did not realise she had noticed. She told Catherine about her daughter, and her grandson “…he has such blue eyes!…” and her dislike of her ‘son-in-law’, even though he is the father of her grandson.
It was as she was relating this that she realised Catherine was, literally, the only person in the world she could say these things to. She briefly broke into her narrative to say…
“Mi Dios… I have missed you so much!”
The orange posset was brought; and sipped; and ignored; and eventually drunk, without Maria even realising they had been disturbed. They just talked and talked. It was as if they had never been parted; let alone being apart for more than two years now!
For her part, Catherine asked after Henry – she still loved him it seemed, despite the real cruelty she had suffered at his hands. She talked a little about being housebound for so long, and being virtually imprisoned for the last two years with nobody but strange new servants who all seemed distant and disengaged. Apart from young Frances, apparently, who was, indeed, sweet-natured.
“She talks very little,” confided Catherine, “because she has this most awful stutter and is always so embarrassed when she tries to speak. She is a little better now; I have tried to encourage her just to relax when she talks to me. And, just occasionally, when she forgets who I am, and why she is here, she can be quite forthcoming. Then she remembers who she is, and where she is, and her ability to talk disappears.”
It was as Catherine finished this sentence that Maria noticed how strained her friend was looking now.
“You look so tired. Let me leave you to sleep, and we will talk again in the morning…”
She began to get up, but Catherine held onto her hand.
“Don’t you dare leave me now. Yes, I am tired, but I am now certain I shall die very soon and I can sleep then! Peacefully, if God wills it!”
“If I was in real pain, as I have sometimes been of late, I might have a problem talking, or just listening. But, even though I am tired now, I can listen and we have so much to catch up with – even just to remember! When I saw you there my mind immediately went back to when we were children. It seems just like yesterday that we were scuttling about that big old palace at Alhambra, and pretending we were in the jungle on those old lions!”
“And the heat…” Maria took up the memory… “…why is England so cold? Even the summer here hardly matches the winter in Spain!”
“WHAT?! Have you forgotten the snow we had in the winter in Alhambra? It could be quite cold there in the mountains!”
“Mmmm… QUITE cold. But not as cold as it is here, by a long way!” Maria shivered theatrically, even though the room was hot with a roaring fire!
“I could have ended up in a block of ice today, if I had lost my way! There are stories each year about poor people getting frozen to death when they miss their way home. One of the Greenwich Palace servants was lost last year, and it was two weeks before they found her, huddled up under a tree, frozen solid. She had taken a wrong turn on the path home!”
“I remember some warm English summers…” Catherine started to say…
“Is that one day or two?!” They both laughed.
“Do you remember that year when Henry went off to have one of his wars with France? His ‘French Campaign’, when he was still little more than a boy? What was it, about fifteen years ago?”
Maria chuckled… “More like twenty, maybe twenty two? I think it was 1513 in fact!”
Catherine thought a little…
“Good gracious, you are right. Where has the time gone? Anyway, I certainly remember that as a VERY hot summer. There were many people who died on ‘Hot Wednesday’ that year…sometime in July I think. Then it got very wet.”
“Henry left me here as his Regent. I don’t think he was quite sure whether I was up to the task, and the Scots must have thought I would fail too, so they invaded the north. But I sent my army into battle at Flodden with the Scots, and we won handsomely in the wettest weather for years! The Duke of Norfolk sent me down that bloody jacket of James IV, killed in battle. I think Norfolk thought I would be too squeamish to know what to do with it!”
Maria finished the story, as friends do.
“…but you sent it on to Henry with a note, I remember it so well! You were pregnant that summer, too, you must have been so uncomfortable in the heat…”
A look of infinite sadness overcame Catherine at this point, and Maria was kicking herself for raising the subject.
“I seem always to have been pregnant over those years…and just one little girl to show for it all – all my poor little boys gone to Heaven. How is Mary? Does she fare well? I miss her so much!”
“Yes, she is well. She has been asking many times to come and see you but she has been getting the same answer as me. And her father can keep a much closer watch on her than he ever could on me, so I cannot see how she would be able to get away as I have done.”
“She will be nineteen next month, and I fear I shall not see her again…” Tears filled Catherine’s eyes but not one escaped onto her cheeks. She had cried into her pillows so much, yet her years of having to be strong in company staunched the flow for the moment – even though it was just Maria there, on her own, her closest friend and confidante.
“Henry and his counsellors are so worried about your general popularity, that they think you and your daughter, Mary, with a little help from the efforts of Monsieur Chapuys, downstairs, and his contacts in Europe, could raise, and win, some sort of popular rebellion!”
“Chapuys has even talked quietly to me about it a couple of times but I have told him in no uncertain terms that neither you nor I would ever consider such a thing…”
“…Oh my goodness …he hasn’t said anything to you since you have been here has he?” Catherine was clearly panicked such talk would be overheard, downstairs at least.
“No,” laughed Maria, “…all we had time to talk about, downstairs, was getting me an orange posset!”
Catherine started to be concerned about her visitor.
“Talking of which,” she said, “you must be getting hungry now, if you have had nothing but the orange since you broke fast this morning! Pull the cord there and we will arrange for food to be brought up… and Chapuys too. He has been so kind since he has been here, nothing has been too much trouble for him. The least we can do is reward him with a little company.”
“And… Maria… will you do me a little favour?” Catherine looked guilty for even enquiring.
“Of course, how could you doubt it? Just name it!” Maria was slightly surprised even to be asked such a question!
“There is a truckle bed in the room, here. Frances has sometimes used it when I have been most incapacitated. Will you stay during the night, so that if I awake I shall not feel alone… it can be SO lonely in the darkest hours!”
“Of course, my dearest Catalina, I was going to ask you if I might stay anyway.
So, with that, all necessary arrangements were made. Some food was provided for them all, albeit that Catherine tasted very little of it. Eustace Chapuys entertained them with tall stories from his youth – daring escapades, every one slightly less believable than the one before! All of them were amusing, Chapuys himself being the butt of most of the amusing tales. He was the most charming of men, especially when he was not being ‘political’ – and he managed to steer clear of politics all evening
The two Doctors of Physic who were charged with Catherine’s health, came in, with many pardons, at around nine of the clock to check on their patient, and the ‘party’ had to break up. Chapuys excused himself, and went off to his chambers. Maria stayed in the room in the background, talking to Frances and two of the servants about her own arrangements for the night. And, as soon as the doctors had discharged their duties, Catherine was cleansed and readied for sleep. Maria sorted her own ablutions out, and settled down into the truckle bed.
Maria became much more aware at this point just how weak Catherine was, and how the process of moving her about to cleanse her was obviously very painful. She was very thin, having had little sustenance for many weeks, and Maria noticed a large lump on her chest, over her heart, which she had not seen whilst Catherine had been snuggled under the covers.
It was perhaps ten o’clock by the time everything had gone silent again, and both women were in their beds ready to sleep. Having said “Goodnight” to each other Catherine had dropped almost straight off, helped, no doubt, by a sleeping draught the doctors had given her, leaving Maria to ponder alone on life and death and her mad ride to Kimbolton. Her pondering lasted only for very few minutes, however, and she herself was asleep in hardly any time at all, though she did manage a small prayer…
“Oh my Lord, thank you for getting me here!” …and with that little prayer she fell asleep.
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